Becoming One, Becoming Holy: A Response to “Sent in Love

This post first appeared on the UM & Global site.

“There has never been a time in greater need of a compelling articulation of the message of holiness.” So begins the 2006 “Holiness Manifesto,” crafted by the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium (now called the Wesleyan Holiness Connection), an ecumenical body comprised of eighteen Wesleyan denominations in the United States, including the United Methodist Church.  At the request of the Council of Bishops, I have been honored to attend a number of annual “steering committee” gatherings with this group. I believe there is much to be learned from our Wesleyan sisters and brothers and much we United Methodists have to contribute – especially at this difficult time in our history as United Methodists.  “Sent in Love,” the recently revised United Methodist ecclesiology statement put forth by the Committee on Faith and Order, is, in part, also a kind of “holiness manifesto,” set forth at a time when there is again a great “need of a compelling articulation of the message of holiness.”

“Sent in Love” (henceforth, SIL) strikes an ecumenical tone at the very beginning, much like the previous draft, “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” did although it does not follow other ecumenical theological statements as explicitly as “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”  As a result, I think SIL portrays our Wesleyan distinctiveness better than its predecessor, and I hope that will aid in its reception by United Methodist congregations.  SIL rightly stresses at the very beginning that ecumenical engagement is no extraneous add-on in our ecclesiological reflection, but is instead integral to who we are as United Methodists.  “We have perspectives to contribute to a wider common Christian understanding of the church.  We also learn about ourselves from other Christians and churches (SIL, paragraph 6).” Our robust ecumenism stems not only from our denomination being a merger of Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches in 1968 but also from our global or oikoumene growth since 1968.  In these months before General Conference 2020, it is critical to remind ourselves in our prayers and in our work that we do not stand alone as individuals or as a denomination, but are part of a world Christian movement in which the Holy Spirit is working to make us all more perfect in love.

I believe SIL will be most useful for what it has to say about holiness.  Holiness is an integrating and animating idea and practice too often relegated to the “ash heap” of Methodist history rather than history’s “garden” from which United Methodists may still yield abundant fruit.  In the eighteen years since I was commissioned as a deacon I have been a member of three different Annual Conferences in three different jurisdictions (Northeast, North Central, and Western).  In all of the places where I have served I have been struck by the lack of attention given to holiness as an integrating and animating idea in United Methodist theological practice.  I have seen this lack of attention at Annual Conference gatherings, in Boards of Ordained Ministry, and in local church preaching. I am also convinced that this is not only a problem for North American United Methodism.

I believe SIL portrays an expansive vision of what holiness is and can be in the life of United Methodist people. “Holiness is deeply personal and yet has inseparable public and social dimensions.  It is as intimate as each person’s inner experience of the pardoning and sanctifying grace of God, and as all-encompassing as God’s will for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation (SIL, pargraph 90).” At a time when political movements inside and beyond the church seek to polarize people in various “camps,” I believe a reinvigoration of “holiness” language and accompanying practices in United Methodism has the potential to break down “dividing walls of hostility.”  That said, I am fully aware that debates about holiness have been a source of conflict in our history.  Areas of conflict will doubtless persist as they have in the church from the days of the apostles onward, but I believe that framing our disagreements in light of a common call to holiness can call forth within all of us a posture of reconciling love as we seek to model our lives after Jesus Christ, the Holy One. 

The theme of holiness resonates deeply with all four “marks” of the church discussed in SIL and does so implicitly and explicitly.  I especially like the way these four marks are discussed (in Part Three) in an inverted order such that our missional impulse (apostolicity) is mentioned first and followed by catholic, holy, and one rather than the more conventional ordering.  In the ecumenical movement of the past several decades sometimes Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, “that they may be one,” has been stressed to the neglect of his prayer “that the world may believe.”  By inverting the traditional ordering SIL sends a different message, one that I pray unifies us around our common missional priorities instead of the issues that divide us.  We are apostolic, catholic, holy, and one.    

Inspired by the ecumenical work of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection and as part of my own celebration of the Methodist missionary society centennial in 1819, I decided to organize a group of five Wesleyan pastors in my hometown to gather our congregations in weekly meetings during Lent to celebrate our common Wesleyan mission.  I look forward to sharing excerpts from SIL concerning the theme of holiness during at least one of these meetings.  I encourage readers to do the same in your own formal and informal efforts at living out Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one… that the world may believe.”  It is our holy calling. 

About Ben Hartley

From 2005 to 2016 I served as Associate Professor of Christian Mission at Palmer Theological Seminary, the seminary of Eastern University in Philadelphia. From 2016 to 2020 I served with the same title at George Fox University. In 2020 I moved to Seattle, Washington where my spouse, Laura Hartley, will be serving as Provost at Seattle Pacific University. The best email with which to reach me is now hartley.benj@gmail.com
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